This is Not a Ghost Story: Florida’s Haunted Landscapes

This is Not a Ghost Story: Florida’s Haunted Landscapes October 26, 2017

image via pixabay
image via pixabay

Here’s the thing about Florida – it can be totally insane, as unimaginable as if you were living on another planet. Down in South Florida we are teeming with wildlife: alligators, enormous iguanas, pythons, egrets, great herons, all wandering around in our swampy, sweaty marshlands. The people are as diverse as the wildlife and all kinds of languages and ethnicities mix together. If you move up the state you’ve got more small towns and what seems like the old South in some places – backwoods, shotgun houses, and long-time Florida locals. I’ve lived here all my life, and I love everything about this land. While there is the crazy and the ugly, all of it is matched with much beauty.

St. Augustine is one of the oldest cities in Florida, and the graves in the Tomolato Catholic Cemetery date back to the 1800s. The founding Sisters of St. Joseph are buried there. Many of the graves are crumbling and hard to read, but some of them reveal the names of entire families buried with each other, most gone too soon, by our standards. This land is ripe for haunting, and among the old locals there is a strong history of storytelling and folklore. There are also ghost tours –  a sure sign that a place is haunted.

My husband and I went on the ghost tour while I was there for a writing workshop. It was a lot of shuffling around by lantern light, the guide fumbling to deliver bad jokes, and stopping in the local bars for drinks. Communion with real people, instead of with the dead, which was fine by me. I don’t want to share my ghosts.

Instead I go to the Tolomato Cemetery later in the week, in the middle of the afternoon. I believe if the ghosts are going to come, they don’t need the cover of darkness. In the end, there were no ghosts, and nothing haunted me but the unknowable stories of the people buried there and what they might tell me if they could.

The Key West cemetery also dates back to the 1800s, and it’s steeped in its own local traditions and stories. Like the Keys – full of eccentrics and oddities with a laid back, anything goes feeling–the cemetery is haphazard, wild in places. The graves were eclectic – different religions and ethnicities in their own sections, some above-ground graves, some in the ground, some cordoned-off tiled areas. There are supposedly more than 100,000 bodies there, which means that in this island city, the dead way outnumber the living. Many of the graves are weathered and broken.  One of the tombs had a big, yawning hole, even though it didn’t appear to be as old as some of the others. I wanted my husband to take a picture, because staring into this dark space, I was convinced that when we would look at the picture later, there would be some kind of sign. I felt the anticipation of something. He was hesitant to take a picture of a partially open grave, but he finally gave in. Later, when we looked through the photos from our trip all the pictures from the cemetery were gone.

image via author
image via author

When my best friend told me about a Florida town called Cassadaga, a town of spiritualists that has been there since the 1800s, we immediately planned a trip. If a person wanted to buy a house on their 57 acres of land they had to be a part of their spiritualist association. We stayed in the Cassadaga Hotel – an old, historic hotel right on the border of the town. The hotel owners left each night and we were totally on our own with whoever else was staying there. It was mostly empty when we went, just a bachelorette party and a married couple who said they were looking to spice things up. Despite offering tours, advertising their services, and saying they welcome the curious and skeptical, the spiritualists seemed very wary of outsiders. We took a nighttime tour and it ended up being far less creepy than it sounded. The tour guide immediately got defensive when someone asked a question and mostly we walked around and took pictures that the guide promised would have spirit orbs. We saw the fellowship hall and séance room. There was no cemetery and I never even thought to ask where they buried their dead. I didn’t find anything there beyond a fun girl’s trip with my friend, a creepy séance room burned into my memory, and more of the weird Florida that I love.

The only time I ever felt a sliver of something was in an old cemetery in North Yorkshire, England. It was a tiny place in the middle of a small but busy town. My husband and in-laws wanted nothing to do with strolling through the graves on a rare sunny afternoon in England, they just wanted to get some ice cream. So, I went alone and I was the only person in there. As I walked the single tree shaded path through the cemetery and stopped by a grave, I felt something different in the air, creeping up my back and towards my neck. I no longer felt alone, despite still being the only one in there, and I didn’t feel entirely grounded. The air around me had shifted. But it was just a shiver of a thing that lasted only a few minutes. Nothing I could hold on to or that would give me answers.

I didn’t particularly like the people we met in Cassadaga, but I do think I have something in common with them. On some level, we are afraid of loss, of that big gaping hole and we were searching for something to fill it. How can you lose a real, and present, and loved person and replace it with a vague idea of heaven? At times, what I know of my spiritual beliefs matches what I know of the stories behind the names on the gravestones. It’s hard to have faith sometimes without any solid confirmation, to keep doubt from creeping back in. I desperately want some sign, apparition, or even a small feeling I’ve never felt before. I want to know for sure that I will see all of my people again. The pastor at my old parish would say when he held up the Eucharist: I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt. If I’m honest it is those words that have haunted me for a long time. I have doubts constantly. I know Jesus said something about not relying on signs and wonders, so I’m not sure why I expect one and why I keep searching. Maybe I need to push past my doubt on my own or just accept it will always be there.

Maybe that will always be my ghost story – that I don’t have a ghost story.

Emily Webber is currently in South Florida dealing with colossal iguanas, alligators, two giant house cats, and her nine-month old son while trying to write.

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